That face is still burnt into my memory, a photograph that will never fade: Professor Judy Smith, her granite features nestled into the corner of memory cluttered with lessons learned. I had signed up for her Native American Literature class in the fall of my sophomore year at Kenyon, or rather I had attended the class the first day and got her to sign a slip of paper that allowed me entry.
I was not nearly responsible enough to know when the deadline for course sign-ups was, much less grasp its importance or impact. “Native American Literature” sounded interesting to me. I liked Geronimo, the Battle of Little Bighorn and Pocahontas, so this class would do well enough, I figured. I still had no idea what to major in, but English classes were decent for me, so why not? Smith seemed all right to me at first glance, not uninteresting and a reasonable enough person on the surface. Besides, it fit into my schedule during an afternoon Monday/Wednesday/Friday slot, allowing me to retain my sleep-in schedule, by far the biggest consideration in course selection.
Freshman year had been a breeze. I had been crushed at Exeter with 5 hours of homework crippling every night (there was a class of student at Exeter that never left their rooms, only to go to CVS to get crates of water and bags of mini-pretzels, just to get Bs). The days of class had been equally arduous, heckled as much by classmates as teachers, who tended to hang back and watch the carnage with wry smiles behind their folded hands. So I was academic concrete. Besides, I had taken the equivalent of all AP classes my senior year: Bio, English, History, Calc AB. So at Kenyon, to ease the transition, I “cleverly” signed up for all the same classes: Intro Bio, Intro English, Intro History, and Intro Calc AB. I essentially repeated my senior year of highschool, doing about 20 hours of classroom work all year to get a B+ average (Dad, if you’re reading this, which you probably are, I’m so sorry….). So I delayed my reckoning one year, which I suppose actually saved me, ironically, given I had a chance to figure out social dynamics, extra-curriculars, fraternities, and… well, things like where the bathrooms were (underrated!).
Unfortunately, in my late-teenage arrogance, I figured that the same lackadaisical approach would work just fine sophomore year, given I had skirted the system successfully the first year. And so it was that one afternoon in October, I walked into two classes on a Wednesday afternoon that had blue book exams for which I hadn’t studied. Not only had I not studied for them, I hadn’t read a single word of any of the books that the tests covered (or any of the sparknotes!). The first was a Shakespeare class, the second was Smith’s Native American literature class, the hot stove that would leave its singing mark.
Though I BSed my way through, I received a D on both exams, probably generous given that I said basically nothing for several hours but brain vomit. It was a call from the metaphorical front desk. The only grade below a C+ I had gotten before that was the Chem class I took at Exeter (a nightmare for another tale). My current approach was not going to work anymore. The party was officially over…except on Saturdays, nothing could have stopped that.
Following the episode, I turned the volume on my studies. By large decibels. I read every single word of every book from that day forward for both classes, studied the reading guides, attended every class, took notes, dressed snappily. The second test rolled around and I was exceptionally well-prepared. I destroyed the blue book exams, proudly I walked out with the satisfaction of effort winning over adversity. But then I got the grades. Shakespeare: A, excellent work. Native American Literature: D. Not a D+ or D-, a flat D. She didn’t like me. Perhaps she didn’t like how smug I had been. Perhaps she didn’t like the number of classes I had missed early on, my orientation, my gender, how I looked at the clock too much, how I dressed in clothing a little too large, that my eyes were slightly askew. I don’t know. It didn’t matter, not even a little. She was bearing a grudge and that was all.
I went in to meet with her during office hours, my bluster high. I pointed out the argument I had made, the accuracy of my analysis, my knowledge of the details; I also committed Satan’s worst sin: I argued that her red marks, blood on the page, were inaccurate and just downright wrong. This is not the right thing to do…. She was intransigent, unmoved, her iron jaw locked, the steely look of utter distaste for my entire existence dripping from her inert features; her gray locks cut as neatly as a freshly cut lawn, indifferent to the world of such stray grasshoppers.
The next exam, D. The final exam, D. The class, D (though I continued in all due diligence). Injustice roiled my stomach all semester, detestation that still lingers in my memories 20 years later– blame and regret. At one point I even petitioned the department over the grade, though I later withdrew the petition when I realized the truth: PROFESSORS HAVE COMPLETE IMMUNITY. Like complete. They’re tenured and untouchable. Not only was brown-nosing appreciated and revered by peers and professors in college. It was necessary. It was survival.
This is not to vilify, most of them were very nice, very understanding, motivating, even empowering and life altering (Professor Klein, looking at you, big guy. You’re a freaking god!). But watch out for the Professor Smith’s of the world. Your relationships with your professors take on a more peer-like feel, and similar to your peer relationships in high school, if you don’t manage them well… it’s down the existential sinkhole.